Sagging hallways. Stained carpeting. Musty locker rooms. Suffocating science labs. Restrooms evocative of truck stops.
Such are the highlights of a tour through Fairfax County’s five aptly named “legacy high schools,” also known as Falls Church, Herndon, Langley, Oakton and West Springfield, which were built between 1965 and 1968 but have yet to undergo a full renovation.
Continuing the tour through Fairfax County’s other schools will reveal row upon row of temporary classrooms — 990 in all — leading Fairfax facilities staff to joke that their office has become the largest trailer dealer on the East Coast. But it’s no laughing matter for students at Bailey’s Elementary School, which holds the ignominious title of housing the most trailers of any school in the county: 19.
These schools offer a view of the dark, dank underbelly of what is arguably the nation’s best performing large school district. They are the manifestation of years of failed leadership from Virginia’s elected officials who have forced school districts to economize until they burst at the seams; symbols of the biggest financial crisis facing Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) since the 1950s and 1960s, during which the student population exploded from 17,000 to 133,000.
Over the last five years, FCPS has faced an influx of 3,000 new students per year, a growth rate that will bring its student population to 200,000 by the end of the decade. Over that same five-year period, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has only been able to afford an annual school bond allocation averaging $150 million, well short of the $273 million that would be required annually to renovate the 196 schools on the recommended 25-year cycle.
Assuming passage of Fairfax’s biennial school bond measure on November 5, three of those dilapidated legacy high schools will begin to undergo their first full renovation since Fairfax’s mid-20th century population boom. But others may still have to wait another decade for relief.
Unfortunately, these long-deferred infrastructure needs portend even more troubling trends for local schools. Unless Fairfax and Virginia leaders can swiftly determine new ways to secure significant increases in education funding, the consequences will be stark: minority achievement gaps will widen; already large class sizes and high staffing ratios will increase; advanced academic, arts, world language and special education programs will face cuts; teacher pay will remain stagnant; and fees for tests and sports will become the norm.
Lacking taxing authority, the Fairfax County School Board—which cut administrative costs to the bone during the recession and, as a recent state efficiency review revealed, can save a mere $15 million in efficiencies in its $2.5 billion budget over the next five years—sees no relief in sight.
Beginning its fiscal year 2015 budgeting process, FCPS faces a $140 million shortfall prior to any salary increases. This shortfall is the result of a perfect storm of factors: unrelenting population growth dominated by economically disadvantaged and non-English speaking students, Virginia Retirement System changes, rising healthcare costs, and a plethora of unfunded state mandates for which Fairfax pays more than $100 million annually.
Fairfax is not alone—school systems throughout Virginia are also suffering. But as the state’s largest system that enrolls more new students each year than any other, Fairfax is suffering on an even greater scale. While Virginia has cut spending by $695 per student since 2008, all localities have been left to scrounge for funding.
In 1950, classes of Fairfax students were inhumanely squeezed into boiler rooms, closets, partitioned auditoriums and Quonset huts. At many elementary schools, water wells went dry before the end of the school day. Black high school students had to travel to Manassas because Fairfax could not afford to build its own black high school.
At that critical turning point, the School Board, with the support of the Board of Supervisors, made arguably the boldest financial move in Fairfax history by asking voters to approve the first-ever county school bond. To the surprise of those leaders, Fairfax voters passed that bond with 67 percent of the vote.
While Fairfax no longer confronts school segregation or dry school wells, today’s funding and capacity crisis is just as dire. We cannot continue to wait for our state and federal leaders to restore—much less increase—funding for public education.
Instead, we owe it to future generations of students to take action as bold as that taken by our predecessors in 1950 to save our prized public schools from an otherwise inevitable decline. It is time for our Board of Supervisors to finally heed the call of Supervisor Gerry Hyland (Mount Vernon) to support a 4 percent meals tax dedicated to funding our schools, a measure that could generate as much as $100 million annually.
Until our county leaders take this bold action, our legacy schools will remain standing as reminders of a bygone era when public officials understood the importance of building a better future for our country.
Ryan McElveen is an at-large member of the Fairfax County School Board.